I’m reading, yes, the kind of books you’d expect in 90-degree weather with a flooded basement. Can we get any lighter, please? Over the weekend it was Ngaio Marsh and Janet Evanovich, the latter of whom I discovered at Random Jottings, Yes, I’d be quite thrilled to read nothing but Evanovich for a while and yesterday considered buying a complete set of Stephanie Plum at the used bookstore.
But I treated myself to something different today, Dori Ostermiller’s Outside the Ordinary World, a well-written, funny-serious, light but meditative first novel about marriage, infidelity, and mother-daughter relationships.
Dori Ostermiller, an MFA from the Unviersity of Massachusetts and winner of the Tobias Woolf Fiction Award, has a distinctive voice. Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, she knows exactly how to depict her narrator Sylvia’s changing attitude toward religion as she comes of age. The novel alternates between Sylvia’s childhood in the ’60s and ’70s in California and her adulthood in Massachusetts, where she marries, becomes an artist, and has two children. The impact of Sylvia’s religious mother’s affair with an old friend during Sylvia’s childhood became dangerously complicated as more and more secrets were confided in her. Her mother even met her lover at a church potluck. Sylvia remembers only too well how difficult this knowledge was.
Ostermiller isn’t quite the kind of writer you would expect to be published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin. And perhaps the expectations of the romance novel dictated occasional changes in tone from lyrical to melancholy romantic. One hundred pages into it, I love some parts, but find others contrived. Ostermiller strongly delineates Sylvia’s restlessness in her marriage. Her husband no longer pays attention to her and he has been working on the dream house they bought at an auction for so many years she no longer believes they’ll ever live in it. I really feel her melancholy and bitterness, but perhaps the problem is solved too quickly. She meets a man at a coffeehouse who immediately pursues her. She guiltily spends part of her birthday with him when her husband forgets she has turned 42. The scenes seem a bit too quick. Did plot interfere with her original intentions?
I feel she is on surer ground with Sylvia’s childhood. Here is an example of her prose at its simplest and most enjoyable as Sylvia describes her mother:
“Alison and I always teased her about being so perfect. The most heinous crime she could remember committing as a girl was cutting through Mr. Snyder’s forbidden peach orchard on her way home from school one rainy afternoon. The one time we’d heard her swear–when she locked herself out of the house on a Sabbath before church, then stomped around the courtyard breathing, ‘Damn, damn, damn’–we could hardly contain our delighted shock.”
Ostermiller has a lot of potential and I haven’t yet finished the book so there’s plenty of room for her to impress me. My feeling is she is a literary writer who somehow found herself writing half a romance. So some parts are very literary. I have a feeling that people who liked Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter might very much enjoy this. It could be a terrific book club read.